Theresa Daytner has a seven-figure business and six kids. How does she do it all? Instead of thinking about time management, Daytner said she thinks about “attention management.” Daytner is featured in Laura Vanderkam’s book 168 Hours (referring to the number of hours in a week), in which Daytner shares the questions she regularly asks herself to ensure she keeps a balance between work and home.
“I tell myself and others to look at the time they’re spending and then ask, ‘What’s getting the attention? And whatever that is, is it enhancing my quality of life?’”
Now a mother who dispenses advice to her kids, Daytner’s career choice reflects her own childhood journey. She still remembers the first project she ever built: a loft bed. She was 10 years old when she found, in a magazine lying around her house, the simple plans for constructing it. She sought help from her father to buy the supplies, then proceeded to follow step-by-step instructions with a precision that came naturally to her, even then.
“It felt to me like a recipe,” she recalled. “It felt like baking a cake.”
Or, she added, maybe it felt like building with Legos. Either way, the sense of pride she felt at that young age led her eventually to become the successful entrepreneur she is today. The sense of pride never left. And the bed lasted a long time, too.
“It was the sturdiest bed. You couldn’t budge it. And it was my bed — my first finished product.”
Daytner’s finished products have grown a bit larger. As president and CEO of Daytner Construction Group, in Mt. Airy, she managed a renovation of the Patriot Center at George Mason University, supported construction of the Biomedical Research Center at the National Institutes of Health and oversaw construction of a new federal building for the U.S. General Services Administration.
‘A Different Lens’
In books, magazine articles, and just in passing conversations, Daytner is often noted as a woman who has succeeded in a so-called man’s world. But she doesn’t think of herself that way because she grew up in a household in which gender roles were nontraditional.
Her father was a beautician who owned several stores in the Washington, D.C., area, and her mother was a geologist. “I always saw my mother in jeans and work boots, and I always saw my father taking curlers out of people’s hair. And so you can understand how, when it comes to gender roles, I might view the world through a different lens.”
As the daughter of an entrepreneur, she also observed the characteristics of her father that made him successful — as well as those that weakened his approach to business.
“My father was a renaissance man,” she said. “In yoga, people talk about having the mind of a child, meaning a beginner’s mind, a fresh approach. He was fearless like a child.”
Many entrepreneurs share that sense of fearlessness, and many times a corresponding unwillingness to deal with mundane detail.
“My father would decide to, say, throw a party,” Daytner recalled. “He didn’t worry about whether he had enough food. I noticed this. I assessed it. He tended to dabble but sometimes he lacked focus.”
Square Peg in a Round Hole
While observing her parents built her self-confidence, Daytner’s childhood school experience tore away at that sense of self.
Now known across the country as one of the savviest woman entrepreneurs making money today, Daytner deeply believes that schools don’t always teach in a way that fits all children. “I’m smart,” she said. “I love to learn. But, early on, school set me way back in terms of my self-esteem. The public school system teaches one way.”
Daytner found that her small, on-the-side projects — rebuilding a moped, changing the oil in her car — helped build her confidence outside of school. She tackled what she knew she could accomplish, and she did it well.
When she opened her first business, she retained the same philosophy: Bite off the pieces you can chew, and do them so well that customers won’t go anywhere else.
“My first business was a residential roofing company,” she said. “I realized, when I looked at the people running those companies, that I could do it better. We didn’t handle complicated stuff at the time. But we consistently showed up when we said we were going to show up.”
The Money Side
When Daytner realized she was ready to move on to a larger level of business, her next career move was to work for a CPA firm, where she temporarily settled in to learn the money-handling side of the complex commercial construction industry.
She still thinks of this as her “scratch-and-sniff” experience, of having access to healthy companies and watching how they communicated both internally and externally. She also worked for a general construction contractor for a year, absorbing knowledge of overhead and the inner workings of that business.
After an intense stint of studying to become an accountant, she passed the entire CPA exam at one sitting, then opened her own CPA firm — her second entrepreneurial endeavor. Her clients specialized in carpentry and construction.
Daytner eventually grew her current company from those seeds of experience. Now Daytner Construction Group has grown through the recession by entering the federal sector. “Over the last two years, I was asked to get more involved in general contracting with the federal government.”
Daytner confesses she backed into this sector of business rather reluctantly but now sees it as one of the more profitable paths. “Hey, I only said ‘no’ a couple of times,” she laughed.
In April, Daytner was designated as one of the 50 fastest-growing women-owned companies in North America. The list was released by American Express OPEN, the small business division of American Express, and the Women Presidents’ Organization.
Karen-Michelle Mirko, a director at American Express OPEN, said that women business owners share some common financial struggles. “We found that only 1.8% of women business owners were getting over the $1 million mark,” she said, adding that, correspondingly, many of them find it challenging to rise above the 100-employee mark.
That’s why Mirko and others call the $1 million, 100-employee marks the ‘heartbreak hill’ of growing a woman-owned business.
“Yet we know that women are opening businesses at twice the rate of men,” she said.
“I think Theresa is a great example. We met her in 2006 and her revenue was under $1 million.” Daytner became part of the “Make Mine A Million” program, founded by American Express OPEN and the nonprofit Count Me In. Daytner proceeded to grow the business — even during a recession — and notch way past the million-dollar mark.
American Express OPEN also has launched a program called “Victory in Procurement” that aims to help women business owners learn how to bid for and win government contracts. “Uncle Sam is an excellent customer,” pointed out Mirko. “He pays on time. He tends to have bigger contracts. And he can have multiple-year contracts.”
The Genius of the Group
Marsha Firestone, founder and president of the Women Presidents’ Organization (WPO), said that second-stage entrepreneurs like Daytner learn best from their peers and not from a predetermined program. “We call it bringing the genius out of the group,” she said.
Daytner and other entrepreneurs say that supportive peers have played a huge role in their success. “Eighty percent of our members feel that WPO has helped them in the economic downturn,” said Firestone.
There is a power that comes when people honestly share their experiences, she said. “They are comfortable speaking and opening up about their issues because the other members say, ‘I was there. Here’s how I handled it.’ A great deal of insight is shared.”